Has God Left the Suburbs?
Last week, Patti and I were welcomed as guests to the annual Global Gathering of the Acts 29 network, a kindred tribe of pastors and leaders for whom we have great affection. One of the talks given at the Gathering was by Ross Lester, a pastor in South Africa. To put it mildly, we found Ross’ insights magnificent. Ross’ reflection (the transcript of which appears below as this week’s guest post) concerns the unique need and challenges for gospel ministry in a suburban context. I hope you are as challenged by his words as we were.
I have spent the last ten years serving a church in the big, bad, beautiful city of Johannesburg, South Africa. But that isn’t an entirely true statement, because the community in which our church gathers is found in the leafy suburbs to the North of the city of Johannesburg, beyond the limits of the city itself. But that doesn’t sound very exciting, or missionally hip, and doesn’t fit the mold of urban church planting that we have all been espousing for the last decade or so. I know many of you didn’t hear that last bit I said, because you are trying to get your head around the concept of an African suburb. We built some, just beneath the rocky outcrop where Mufasa first held Simba aloft. They are very nice.
Why don’t we talk more freely of living in the suburbs?
The suburbs are a bit embarrassing it seems, and yet statistically, most of us here probably live and minister in a suburban context. Over 53% of the US population lives in the burbs, and though it might not seem like it, it is the fastest growing population migration in the West, with low density suburbs growing the fastest by far. I know it looks like lots of people are moving back into the city, with their ironic moustaches and alarmingly tight trousers, but the re-inhabiting of urban spaces is a complex and costly exercise and isn’t keeping track with people just trying to get to the suburbs for some peace and quiet.
And we do have a verse for that desire in 1 Thess 4:11, which says, “Make it your ambition to live a quiet life, minding your own business, and scooping up after your dog…”, (that last bit has the translators perplexed, because actually tells us to work with our hands, but we have no idea how to translate that into a suburban context.) But while we do have a verse that seems to justify suburban retreat, we actually know that suburban living is kind of structurally set up as anti-gospel.
Jared Wilson said, “I think the spirit at work in the suburbs tends to smother the Christian spirit. The message of the suburbs, in a nutshell, is self-empowerment. Self-enhancement. Self-fulfillment. Self is at the center, and all things serve the self. The primary values of suburbia are convenience, abundance, and comfort. In suburbia you can have it all – and you can get it made to order in a super-sized cup with an insulated sleeve.”
And so, for quite a long time I partially resented having to minister into a suburban context. Longing for something a little more missionally credible. A little more street.
But, God opened my eyes. Behind the barriers of immaculate lawns and white picket fences, (or in our context of high walls and electric fence perimeters), hides real people. People full of fear, full of anxiety, full of stress, full of idolatry, full of sin and full of almost endless potential for gospel advance if we would engage them well. My mind and my heart reflected on Jesus’ response to the rich young ruler. I know that not everyone in the suburbs is rich, but I think most people in the suburbs wrestle like that young man with having a split priority heart. Mark’s gospel tells us that as the young ruler is spitting out self-justification, and just before Jesus is going to pull the rug out from under him, that Jesus looks at him and loves him. We are called to do the same. To love and serve spilt-priority people.
So, here are just a few things we have learned in growing to love our suburban setting. They are subjective and incomplete, but maybe they may spark something in one or two of you.
- You have to fight hard for genuine community in places that revolve around the cult of the stand-alone nuclear family unit
Man, this is one of the biggest struggles in suburban environments. They are expensive, which means people tend to work crazy hours, they are filled with crazy schedules for kids, so time after work is full to the brim, and they are designed – even spatially – around suspicion of other, and so getting genuine community happening is very difficult.
Sociologists have noted that in the US at least, the design of houses has changed in the suburbs. Houses used to be near the front of the lots, with the front porch as the central point. Now they are built with the living areas all facing the back of the lot, with the private back patio being the focal point.
It’s tough work getting suburban people into biblical community. It’s pushing water up hill, it’s pushing camels through eyes of needles, but if we believe that the gospel creates the sorts of the communities we really believe it does, well then don’t stop pushing the water…or the camels.
In addition, we should model this for our people, and not be guilty of asking them to live in levels of community that we ourselves don’t see as necessary or good for our families and lives.
- You have to strive to model and teach the value of diversity in spaces built around homogeny
I know South Africa has this amplified, because segregated spatial planning was official government policy as recently as 23 years ago. But even as a South African, I find suburban spaces in other parts of the world hugely homogenous.
Churches have to break the mold on this. If there is an area in the world where we can actually be trendsetters, it is this one. Gosh but it takes boldness, humility, repentance and the willingness to fail, but we must strive. The price of suburban churches simply accepting the standards of their own geographical homogeny is high. It says the opposite of the all that we believe. It values comfort over compassion, and it creates safe spaces for ongoing prejudice, bigotry and racism to hide and fester, never having to blow its cover.
- You have to continually highlight God’s desire for justice in spaces designed to remove people from feeling and experiencing injustice
The suburbs are wonderful. I really like living in them. The schools are good, the parks are good, the areas are safer. Thus, they can have a numbing impact on people, so that when they see other people experiencing injustice, their response becomes one where their own experience with lack of injustice towards them allows them to negate the injustice experienced by others.
Brothers and sisters, I know we are cautious of a liberal social gospel. But truth be told, us reformed cats have the big view of a sovereign God, and we are told again and again that that God hates injustice. We hold to the high truths of the Scripture and those Scriptures tell us again and again that the people of God are called to be a just and merciful people in the midst of an unjust and unmerciful world.
Suburban churches should be regularly disquieted by their prophetic pastors, who draw attention to the ills in the world, and especially the ones that our suburban existences create and exacerbate.
Our schools are good, because there is inequitable spending on schools in other areas.
Our neighborhoods are safe for us, because they aren’t safe for people who don’t look like us. Our products are cheap and varied, because people down the supply chain have been squeezed to below livable wages to get them to us.
Our suburban life of comfort comes at a great cost to others.
- You have to remind people of God’s great mission and their place in it, in the midst of routines, school-runs, commutes and survival
Suburban life can seem like and endless routine of school-runs, latte stops, long commutes, soccer matches and weekends that are too short. Radiohead summarized it well albeit somewhat fatalistically when they sang, “I’ll take the quiet life, a handshake of carbon monoxide. With no alarms and no surprises.”
But the Grand Narrative of Scripture doesn’t exclude people from participation in God’s great mission of bringing all things under his rule and reign. And suburban people can and must play their part.
Remind them that their homes are mission stations
Outposts of hospitality, kindness and grace in increasingly hostile and post-Christian contexts. Orchards in which the fruits of the Spirit can be grown and shared.
Remind them that their jobs are missionary assignments
Their cubicle or corner office or school commute is a place that you as a paid Christian can’t get. In that way, they are going everyday into spaces you cannot reach. Send them as missionaries, with purpose, into those spaces.
Remind them that their money is mission ammunition
Money feels like something you don’t want to give away especially with the high cost of living in the suburbs. But if you tell them and show them how their money can blow big holes in the gates of hell, then they are more compelled.
- You have to make big calls of sacrifice in the midst of surroundings designed around comfort
We continually think that the way to engage suburban people is to give in to their zeitgeist and to make following Jesus as easy and non-sacrificial as possible.
Two problems with that. One is the bible. And the second is that it doesn’t work.
Call your people to sacrifice, to serve, to risk, to resist, to be foreigners and aliens and freaks of holiness and humility.
- You have to promote and celebrate advance in spaces designed for retreat
The world of the suburbs is small. Local schools, local stores. It’s great.
But the world of the gospel is large, and while people worry about its retreat at their local High School, they need to know that it is advancing in Nairobi, and Lilongwe and Lagos, and Seoul and Sydney and Singapore, and London and Loughborough and Lyon.
- You have to preach and believe the scandalous gospel of grace in environments designed around performance and self-help
Like the rich young ruler, most of our people will want to justify themselves through achievement. And that is subsequently how most of us as pastors will want to measure our success in ministry too. Continue to disarm your people an yourselves through the marvelous message of grace.
The suburbs are essentially an attempt to create an alternate Kingdom. A place of peace and security here on earth. As such, it is a noble endeavor, but it does it through exclusion and not through the power of God’s grace and truth.
Breathe Kingdom of God grace and Spirit of God power repeatedly into your suburban people. They can change the world. But they will need to enlarge their worldview in order to do that. That’s why God sent you to teach them.
This essay was first posted at Ross’ website, and can be found here.